I had never heard a political lie as squalid as the one told by David Cameron in Prime Minister’s Questions on 20 April – and for which he offered a very belated semi-apology late last night.
This lie perjured a British citizen, living under the Queen’s peace. It exposed him to hatred and abuse and put him in fear for the safety of his young family. Delivered with the protection of parliamentary privilege, it deprived him of any redress or remedy. It was a deliberate, pre-meditated lie, prepared and sustained with resources provided by the taxpayer.
We know that it was premeditated because it was not made in the hurly burly of Commons combat with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Cameron was answering a planted question fed to him by a tame Conservative backbencher, Christopher Pincher, the MP for Tamworth in Staffordshire.
The question had no apparent relevance to Tamworth. It was used by Cameron – and intended to be used - to try to influence the result of an election far away in London.
Cameron hoped that he could influence the election for London mayor by smearing the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, and associating him with extremists.
He said that Khan had shared a platform nine times with a south London imam, Suliman Gani – and added “This man supports IS.”
It was a venomous accusation: to support IS, Islamic State, is to support the most vicious terrorist organisation in the world. As a direct consequence, Gani was threatened by thugs when he tried to buy a meal in a local restaurant. He became afraid to let his children – the youngest is three – go outdoors.
The accusation was completely false, and supported by no evidence at all. Gani rightly asked for a retraction. He had already demanded an apology from the BBC for making a similar accusation on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics programme.
Eventually the BBC acknowledged that he did not support Islamic State. It published a statement to this effect on its corrections and clarifications website page which said: “We apologize to Mr Gani for this error and any distress caused.”
It is worth noting that the website has a far smaller audience than Neil’s programme (in my view Neil still needs to make an on air retraction and apology) but at least the correction was made public.
But the prime minister stuck by his lie, even after I and others (including the indefatigable LBC political reporter Theo Usherwood) gave Downing Street abundant evidence that Gani was an enemy of terrorism, a respected member of his local community with a string of awards and citations from other faith leaders and organisations, and that he was actually a Tory supporter.
As an official spokesman told me woodenly: “The prime minister has said what he has said.”
Worse still, the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, amplified the prime minister’s lie on BBC Radio Four last week, using the term “Daesh”, an even more specific reference to the terrorist group which has brought savagery to the territories it has seized in the Middle East.
These remarks had no protection from parliamentary privilege and Gani threatened the defence secretary with legal action. This threat produced a mealy-mouthed retraction – though not from Fallon himself but from an anonymous spokesman.
The retraction tried to evade responsibility for Fallon’s remarks by saying that he had been quoting the original false claim by Andrew Neil. “He (Fallon) was unaware of the clarification and apology that the BBC had issued on Neil’s claim.
"Had he been aware, he would not of course have quoted him and as soon as he became aware he put the record straight. He naturally apologises for this inadvertent error.”
Fallon’s retreat finally produced action from the prime minister – a full three weeks after his original lie.
Crucially, Cameron did not have the grace to make his apology himself, or in the House of Commons where the lie was launched.
Instead, a Downing Street spokesman said grudgingly: “In reference to the prime minister’s comments on Suliman Gani, the prime minister was referring to reports that he supports an Islamic state. The prime minister is clear this does not mean Mr Ghani supports the organization Daesh and he apologises to him for any misunderstanding.”
It remains to be seen whether Fallon and Cameron have done enough to free Gani and his family from the misery caused by their lies. Gani has not dropped his threat of legal action against Fallon.
Just over a decade ago, I published a book called The Rise Of Political Lying. I analysed the methods which modern governments have used to make people accept falsehood as fact. I became a reluctant expert in lies by recent prime ministers and their lackeys.
This lie stands out from all those I studied from other prime ministers and governments. This is why.
First, it was carefully prepared and done at taxpayers’ expense.
Second, it was done for a narrow, party partisan advantage. I have written a great deal about the lies told by the Blair government to take Britain into the Iraq war, and I will be returning to them in my new book Not The Chilcot Report, published in two weeks’ time.
These lies, in my view, were indefensible, but at least one can say that they were committed in a great cause, to persuade the country of the necessity of war. There is something even more contemptible to make an innocent man suffer in a bid to help a flagging campaign by a party candidate for a local contest. (Certainly, the mayor is an important office, but it is still a local one, with nothing at issue for the rest of the country).
Third, it was designed to appeal to sectarianism and prejudice. Cameron used Gani to warn voters against voting for a Muslim of Asian descent. I do not believe that he would have dared behave this way towards any other faith.
Fourth, it was a naked abuse of power. Cameron sent a chilling message to all the British people. What happened to Gani could have happened to anybody: the prime minister awarded himself the right to smear any man or woman for his political advantage.
There is an echo here of America’s witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy, who gave himself the right to name anyone as a communist without evidence.
Many questions still surround Cameron’s lie. Who provided him with the false information? Was it the Zac Goldsmith campaign? Is so, how did Goldsmith acquire it?
Furthermore, Cameron is still perpetrating a deceit. His claim that it was a "misunderstanding" is wrong. Cameron was explicit in the Commons that Gani supported the terrorist organisation IS.
There is one further worry arising out of the prime minister’s duplicitous statement. Many people will find it hard to make the distinction between "an Islamic state", which the prime minister continues to assert that Gani supports, and the terror group IS.
Numerous Muslims support the concept of a nation and society built on Islamic values. There is no reason for them not to do so.
Even in secular Britain, striving for an Islamic society must be regarded as a legitimate democratic aspiration (just as political parties are entitled to call for a Britain based on Christian values). It is very dangerous and irresponsible of Cameron to muddle peaceful aspirations towards an Islamic state, and terrorism.
Finally, we need to see Cameron’s apology fully transcribed in Hansard, the official parliamentary record. It would be best if the prime minister could make a statement to the Commons. Because his retraction was not made in parliament, people are still free to repeat his original accusation with impunity as a report of proceedings in parliament.
For all these reasons, Cameron’s lie struck at our basic values of fairness and honesty and tolerance and at the presumption of innocence. But he has been made to apologise and perhaps he will be deterred from repeating this performance.
Although grudging and graceless, the retraction may do something to slow the steepling descent in standards of our public life.
Cameron’s lie about Gani was the lowest part of Goldsmith’s filthy mayoral campaign, which was largely based on anti-Muslim bigotry and nevertheless fully backed by the Tory leadership. This entire episode leaves behind a permanent blot on Cameron’s reputation.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron (AFP)